May 28, 2024 // Diocese

Father Fernando Returns to Sri Lanka

Ministering to the sick and older adults has been a focus of Father Polycarp Fernando’s ministry in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. He plans to continue some of that work in his homeland of Sri Lanka after retiring on Monday, June 17, from this diocese.

Father Fernando, 73, who currently serves as a Parochial Vicar at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne, will move to the campus of the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Angels of Sri Lanka in the country’s Archdiocese of Colombo. The campus includes an infirmary, chapel, and training program for women entering the congregation.

“When sisters fall sick, they bring them there,” said Father Fernando, who wants to live in a religious community. “And they look after them and, when they are cured, they are sent back.” Holy Angels sisters work as teachers and care for older adults in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Australia.

Photos by Kevin Kilbane
Father Polycarp Fernando stands in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne. He will retire on Monday, June 17, after serving 13 years at St. Vincent and a total of 27 years in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The move will put Father Fernando about an hour from his home village and family, so he can visit them often, he said. The youngest of 14 children, he now has only four living siblings, including a sister who is a member of the Holy Angels religious order and who works in Australia. He asked Bishop Rhoades to grant him retirement before the usual age 75 so he can spend time with his surviving family.

St. Vincent Parish will celebrate Father Fernando’s 13 years of ministry there with farewell receptions after the 9 and 11 a.m. Masses on Sunday, June 9, in the parish’s Monsignor John Kuzmich Life Center.

“Both the youngest and the oldest parishioners are especially drawn to him,” said Father Daniel Scheidt, St. Vincent Pastor. “The oldest parishioners because he is so generous with his time and thoughtful in his listening to their needs and concerns. And also wise in offering his pastoral counsel to them.

“The littlest and youngest of our parishioners are drawn to him because he is like an extra grandfather for them – or even great-grandfather,” Father Scheidt added. Father Fernando always greets people before and after weekend Masses, he said, and he celebrates some weekday Masses for children attending the parish’s school.

Father Fernando was born in a small village near the city of Negombo on the west coast of Sri Lanka, an island nation southeast of India. The Negombo area is about 95 percent Catholic, though Catholics and Christians make up only about 6 percent of Sri Lanka’s overall population, Father Fernando said. About 65 percent of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism.

Father Polycarp Fernando stands near the altar at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne, where he has served the past 13 years. He will retire on Monday, June 17, after 27 years of service in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Along with growing up in a strong Catholic family and in a Catholic environment, Father Fernando said he was inspired to become a priest by his pastor, who served as a mentor, and by the first man from his village to become a priest. Father Fernando said he felt a call to the priesthood in sixth grade, and he entered a seminary in 1964 to begin eighth grade. After graduation from high school, however, he left the seminary and taught for about two years at an after-school tutoring site.

He still felt called to the priesthood, so he moved to the Diocese of Galle in southern Sri Lanka and enrolled in the seminary there, he said. Some of his friends attended the same seminary. The Galle diocese, which serves an area with few Catholics, also had a greater need for priests. He was ordained there on August 19, 1978.

During approximately the next 18 years, he served in the Diocese of Galle except when earning a master’s degree and doctorate in moral theology in Rome.

He came to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in May of 1997.

His diocese in Sri Lanka allowed priests to serve for three years in the United States to gain pastoral experience, Father Fernando said. A neighbor from his home village who had become a priest already worked in this diocese and recommended it, saying the only problem was the snow and winter. He applied to this diocese and one in New York, telling himself he would accept the first offer. That came from the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese’s late Bishop John M. D’Arcy.

After a few months at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Father Fernando served from August of 1997 to 2001 at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Fort Wayne. There, his responsibilities included ministering to people who were sick, in nursing homes, or homebound.

“Everybody cannot do it,” Father Fernando said. “When I worked at St. Charles, I got that liking and zeal to do that.”

After completing his allowed three years in America, he asked to stay on as a priest of this diocese rather than return home. Bishop D’Arcy approved the request.

“I thought I can work here well,” Father Fernando explained.

He continued ministering to a large number of homebound parishioners when he was named Pastor in 2001 of both St. Henry and Sacred Heart parishes in Fort Wayne.

From 2003 to 2011, Father Fernando served as Pastor at St. Dominic Parish in Bremen, where he said he did a lot of work with youth and children. He also led the parish through the diocese’s Legacy of Faith fund drive, where the congregation exceeded its parish goal by nearly $100,000. They had the highest parishioner participation rate among all congregations in the diocese. The overage returned to the parish helped them add a chapel and main-floor restrooms, he noted.

Father Fernando enjoyed his time at St. Dominic, but he asked Bishop Rhoades to assign him as a parochial vicar so he could devote more time to ministering to the sick and older adults. He began his assignment at St. Vincent Parish in 2011 and has been there since.

The parish’s boundaries include at least 14 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, more than any other parish in the diocese, Father Fernando said. He celebrates Mass monthly at nine of the facilities and visits all of them at least once a month.

He also visits people who are homebound and St. Vincent parishioners who are living in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities just outside the parish boundaries.

“I talk to them a little,” Father Fernando said of his visitations. “I give Communion and a blessing. If there is anything they want, I tell them here [St. Vincent Parish].”

Father Fernando’s responsibilities at St. Vincent also include presiding at parishioners’ funerals and participating in the regular preaching rotation at Masses, Father Scheidt said.

“Father Polycarp is very diligent about preparing his homilies, both in terms of study and of prayer,” said Father Scheidt, who described Father Fernando as very humble. The homilies encourage people to examine their lives in relation to that day’s Gospel message, which “has helped multitudes of us at St. Vincent’s examine our lives in light of the Lord and bring our lives to the Lord,” Father Scheidt said.

Father Fernando said he has most enjoyed two aspects of being a priest: “Of course, celebrating Mass and the sacraments, confession,” he said. That allows him to participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ. “And, of course, I like children. We learn a lot of things from them. When we become friendly with the children, it is good for the children to have that trust and so on and also get an idea of a priest gradually (while) growing up.”

Father Fernando expressed appreciation for the many laypeople who assisted him at the parishes where he served. He also thanked leaders who have worked with him, such as Bishops Rhoades and D’Arcy, the late Monsignor John Suelzer at St. Charles, and current Pastor Father Scheidt and former Pastor Monsignor John Kuzmich at St. Vincent.

“He’ll be greatly missed,” Father Scheidt said, “because he loved generously, and he encouraged people to love generously.”

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